Can the Quirky Literary Comedy The Extra Man Fulfill Its Wes Anderson Ambitions?

Despite its colorful characterizations and quirky, fresh sense of humor, there’s really only one idea bouncing around in Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s movie The Extra Man: what if you took two literary dandies styled after the novels of the early 20th century and dropped them in the contemporary world? That’s the premise of the new comedy, opening at the Angelika Film Center, which plays out like an elaborate English major’s joke.

Louis Ives is a young, nerdy high school literature teacher who is let go from his job at an uppity New England prep school and decides to head to New York to “find himself.” There, a newspaper ad advertising a room for a “gentleman” attracts his attention. The room is let by Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline), an English teacher at Queens College who clings to a sense of aristocracy and the values of the closed chapters of a more eloquent, styled, and verbose past. Kline is delightful as the foppish Henry Harrison, a man whose careful enunciation and snobbish adherence to high tastes hides a lonely life of impoverished solitude.

Henry and Louis are almost too perfect a pair – the father and the son, the master and the apprentice – two nostalgic literati whose personal eccentricities have driven them to the comfort of literary fiction, and they try to live out these fictional mannerisms in the real world.

Henry Harrison has found a venue for playing the role of an imaginary aristocrat. He is an “extra man.” Not quite a suitor or a gigolo, he accompanies rich old widows to balls, art galleries, and various societal events. Despite Henry’s abject poverty he (and a handful of other extra men and women) spends much effort mooching rides, dinners, trips, guest rooms, and all the accoutrement of high-style living. Once he has moved in with the extra man, Louis becomes roped into the world, accompanying Henry on some of his “dates.” Louis is his own strange bird. He imagines his life is narrated by a narrator from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and he hides a peculiar sexual deviancy — an interest in cross-dressing and an attraction to old women. With the rich old ladies, Louis is dashing and debonair, betraying a naïve innocence that charms the widows. Louis has inadvertently stumbled upon a potent love potion: the sweetness of a grandson mixed with a suppressed, bashful eroticism. The old women swoon for him.

The Extra Man rides on the humor that spins off this quirky set-up, but its funniest moments come through Louis’ job at an environmental magazine. Here Berman and Pulcini cleverly juxtapose two worlds of snobbish high-mindedness — 1920s high society and 2010s environmental moralism — to crack jokes about how changing tastes do not erode a fundamental hypocrisy in social fashion.

But one joke is not enough to build a story. As The Extra Man flops along, its story becomes increasingly pointless. The conceit is distractingly similar to Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Except, unlike that movie, The Extra Man isn’t as comedically diverse, nor does it seem interested, as Anderson and Wilson are,  in using hyper-verbosity to elucidate an existential honesty that is unattainable through a film styled on social realism. Instead, it wraps up with some notions of friendship and other themes so flighty they call attention to the fact that the movie isn’t really about anything at all.

In its final scene, the film acknowledges that it isn’t interested in transcending the buffoonery of its own one-trick circus. The imaginary narrator that narrates Louis’ life confesses, “and where exactly have we arrived?” Perhaps the writers thought this self-effacement was honest or un-pompous. It comes off, however, as sophomoric.

Kevin Kline in The Extra Man. (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

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